BEYOND Sofia: Things to do in Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a beautiful country in the Balkans that isn’t overrun with tourists yet! If you’ve been curious about whether Bulgaria is worth visiting, but you just keep reading about Sofia, here is a list for you!

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While Sofia is a worthwhile stop in the country, you could happily spend a couple weeks in Bulgaria and never set foot in the capital city. There is so much to discover in this affordable travel destination.

*Do bring cash when exploring outside of Sofia. There are still many restaurants, attractions, and washrooms, that require you to have cash!*

A partially ruined church stands at the top of a mountain in Bulgaria. Mist hangs low in the sky.

Bulgaria also makes my list of

Slow Travel Ideas to Get Lost in 2021

Balchik Palace

If you’ve toured through beautiful castle grounds in Europe, you may be surprised to learn that there is a quiet spot in Bulgaria that rivals some of the best!

A woman and her young daughter stand under the decorative iron gate into the raised colourful gardens of Balchik Palace
The colourful gardens at Balchik Palace

Once a summer palace to the Queen of Romania, in shifting borders this castle and its beautiful grounds landed on the Bulgarian side.

Perched atop a cliff overlooking the Black Sea, the gardens are the statement piece here. Beautiful seasonal flowers bloom in a geometric bed, there is a cactus field, and a few different water features.

A view overlooking a garden and vine covered gazebo above the black sea at sunset
More of the beautiful gardens above the Black Sea at Balchik Palace

The palace itself is simple and maybe not the royal residence you would expect. Compared to other European countries. It’s more of a manor than a castle.

The simple white spire with a black roof of Balchik Palace in front of the Black Sea
The palace itself

One of the things I love about Bulgaria, is the free access at sights like Balchik Palace (free, as in open.) You are free to roam the gardens, and even the palace doesn’t have large roped-off areas that tourist attractions in other countries have.

The view of the sea is breathtaking, and Balchik Palace and grounds is truly one of my favourite things that we’ve seen in Bulgaria!

A large garden of cacti surrounded by tall cedars at Balchik Palace in Bulgaria.
The cactus garden at Balchik Palace

Bulgarians don’t like the price tag to get in, so take the bad reviews with a grain of salt. (Although these prices are clearly geared towards tourists, so it’s fair enough to be annoyed.)

A young girl trails her hand into a manmade stream as she sits on a stepping stone. Tall cedars rise in the distance on either side of the water feature at Balchik Palace in Bulgaria
A water feature at Balchik Palace

Entrance fees are 14 BGN (Leva) for a combo ticket to the garden (8 Lev) and the palace (6 Lev.) Fees seem to change regularly, so children used to get a discount but I am not very clear on whether that is still the case.

Parking is 2 Lev.

The next time we go to Bulgaria I will definitely want to spend more time slow travelling in this area!

Plovdiv Ampitheatre and Old Town

Less than a two hour drive from the capital city of Sofia, is the former capital city of Bulgaria: Plovdiv.

A view of the clay rooftops on a cloudy morning at Plovdiv
Plovdiv Bulgaria

Named the European Capital of Culture in 2019, Plovdiv has roots and ruins dating back to Roman times. More than that, Plovdiv claims to be the oldest city in Europe, having uncovered evidence of settlements from as early as 6000 BC!

Colourful traditional timber buildings in Plovdiv's ancient centre
Traditional Bulgarian architecture in Plovdiv’s ancient old town

No matter exactly HOW old Plovdiv is, it’s an ancient city without being pretentious. It attracts lots of young, cool tourists but isn’t the crowded nightmare that other European cities become in the summer.

Plovdiv Roman Theatre of Philippopolis

The Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv is amazingly well preserved and overlooks the town from a hilltop. The perfect spot for your instagrammable photos!

The entrance fee has skyrocketed from 1 Lev to 5 Lev over the past few years (Just kidding! I mean it really is 5 Lev, but that’s still cheap!)

ancient marble columns rise into the sky above a wooden stage
The remains of the ancient theatre of Philippopolis in Plovdiv Bulgaria

The ticket provides amazing value and you can walk all over the ancient steps and stage. When we went (off season!) there was only one other pair, and they didn’t stay long.

The entrance fee is actually nice to keep the place a little quieter. In my experience, Bulgarians generally don’t believe they should pay to see “their own” things, so many just take pictures outside the gates because they see the ticket as a scam.

A stone entrance into the open air ancient theatre at Plovdiv. The sky is bright blue at the opening
The Ancient Theatre of Philippopolis at Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Plovdiv Old Town

The Old Town of Plovdiv is actually quite large compared to many European cities that have a designated “old town” area.

This is not to be confused with the “Ancient Town” of Plovdiv which is within the old town area, but is only a few streets of historical Bulgarian timber architecture.

Colourful traditional timber buildings in Plovdiv's ancient centre
Traditional Bulgarian buildings in the ancient town of Plovdiv

The ancient town is also nice, and worth the stroll, but it’s over quickly.

The old town also encompasses the large pedestrian area at Plovdiv’s centre, including the ancient stadium of Philippopolis, as well as the ancient theatre.

More ancient stuff? That’s right! Let’s start referring to Plovdiv as “Little Rome” because it has allll the goods. The stadium is a well preserved, well… stadium, that has been excavated and sits proudly in the pedestrian area.

Beyond the ancient spectacles, the Plovdiv old town offers a multitude of chic little places to eat, and makes for a very picturesque stroll!

Colourful glass lanterns hand from the side of a restaurant in Plovdiv
Turkish lanterns hanging at a restaurant in Plovdiv’s Old Town

We sadly did not allow enough time to properly explore all that Plovdiv has to offer, but as always, we hope to return!

Burgas

Often overlooked for it’s larger sister to the north, Varna – Burgas holds it’s own as a charming seaside town with a relaxed atmostphere.

A misty morning over the rocks at the edge of the Black Sea. The sun rises over the long pier in the distance
The pier in Burgas near the end of the Sea Garden

If pleasant Bulgarian company is what you are after, no promises, but Burgas is your best bet! We did find the townspeople to be a little more friendly than other parts of the country.

I’m not saying Bulgarian people hate tourists (or at least not for the most part!) the Bulgarian culture just doesn’t have the same resting smile face as some other parts of the world. The people may not actually be unfriendly, they just don’t value the same pleasantries as we are used to.

Regardless of the reason, at first it can be incredibly off-putting, but eventually you get used to it, and it became a challenge. How ridiculously friendly must we be to get smiles in return? We shall find out.

Anyways, Burgas is on the Black Sea and has a beautiful Sea Garden and a massive stretch of sandy beach.

A closeup of a sandy beach at Burgas Bulgaria with the Black Sea rolling in gently on the left side
The beach beside the Sea Garden in Burgas Bulgaria

Restaurants line the beautiful walkway of the Sea Garden and its an amazing place to take in the sunset. After dusk, head to the old town for some old European charm.

We prefer Burgas to Varna even though it’s smaller, and on paper there is a little less to do, because it’s a comforting city that is nice to just “be” in.

A fountain in front of a run down white and grey old building in the Old Town of Burgas
The Old Town of Burgas

Aside from Sofia we have spent the most time in Burgas.

Varna Old Town

Despite having just declared my preference to Burgas over Varna, the old city of Varna is still well worth the visit.

Rooftop view of Varna at sunrise
Varna rooftops at sunrise

Varna is actually quite similar to Burgas, but the main difference is that the sea garden is FAR more commercialized. If you are just walking down the sidewalk, often you will not have a view of the sea until you are a paying customer at one of the restaurants along the beach.

Where Varna DOES have an edge, is in the architecture department. Varna has a lot more of the beautiful old European buildings that make a stroll through the old town so delightful.

A blue and white intricately decorated building in Varna centre
The city centre of Varna is full of beautiful old buildings

There are also Roman ruins here, like the city of Plovdiv.

a narrow dirt path leads past part of a fallen ancient pillar and up some stone steps in Varna
The grounds of the Roman bath in Varna

Varna is the home of a large ruined Roman bath, which is really neat to explore!

A young girl in a dress and pigtails stands in the remains of a doorway and ancient brick wall in Varna Bulgaria. Ivy grows heavily above.
On the grounds of the ancient Roman bath in Varna

You will also end up travelling through Varna if you choose to explore Balchik Palace or other areas up north, so you may as well take it in!

Aladzha Monastery

Speaking of attractions north of Varna, Aladzha Monastery is an amazing little spot that is somewhat in the middle of nowhere.

A rock cliff with what appears to be a narrow channel cut through it, is the windows from Aladzha Monastery
Aladzha Monastery

This church was carved into the side of a cliff sometime in the 12th century and used for about 600 years!

The remains of a few frescoes are still visible in the plain rooms.

Faded ancient frescoes inside a small white stone room at Aladzha Monastery

The entrance fee at last check was 5 Lev for adults and 2 Lev for children.

A boardwalk and wood railing on the right side of an excavated stone room at Aladzha Monastery
Aladzha Monastery in Bulgaria

We went in the evening and it was a fun place to check out after dark! There is also a little museum on the grounds.

Thracian Tomb of Pomorie

Bulgaria is one of the oldest (or possibly THE oldest) country in Europe, and has so much amazing history to see.

There are actually several Thracian tombs that you can visit in Bulgaria, the most famous of which is Kazanlak, in central Bulgaria. Full disclosure, we have not actually visited Kazanlak, so I can’t speak to whether it is worth the visit or not.

What I CAN tell you, is that the real Kazanlak cannot be visited. In an effort to preserve the paintings and original features, when you visit you will actually tour a replica beside it.

I’m a bit of a stickler for the real thing, so the roadside stop that we DID make, is on my list of things to see and do in Bugaria!

Inside a Thracian tomb - a circular stone building with a central support pillar and some faded motifs on the walls
Inside the Thracian tomb at Pomorie

The Thracian tomb of Pomorie could easily be missed on the small scenic route between Burgas and Varna. We actually did miss it, and then went back out of curiosity after we passed the sign.

An ancient brick wall and archway leads to a mounded hill with an evergreen perched on top.
The Thracian tomb at Pomorie Bulgaria

This tomb is tucked off the road where you almost feel like you are trespassing. Once inside, the access is unprecedented! You are able to walk freely around and could even touch if you wanted to! (We tried to be a bit respectful.)

Admission is 3 leva and you are likely to be there alone, or at least for part of your visit. Some of my favourite pictures of all time are from inside this tomb looking out through the long brick entrance.

A small girl silhouetted in the long hallway of a Thracian tomb in Bulgaria
The entrance to the Thracian tomb of Pomorie

Well worth the stop! When we go back to Bulgaria we will allow a lot more time for investigating points of interest from road signs, because this was quite a pleasant surprise!

Nessebar

The entire old town of Nessebar Bulgaria is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Sight!

If you have ever been to Dubrovnik, Nessebar reminds me of a small, Bulgarian version.

An aerial view of the clay roofs on the peninsula town of Nessebar in Bulgaria, jutting out into the Black Sea
Nessebar Bulgaria

It is a hilly little town with narrow cobbled streets sitting above the Black Sea. This is THE best place to find a restaurant with a view in Bulgaria (in my opinion.)

Traditional Bulgarian timber houses lining a narrow street in Nessebar Bulgaria

Having a glass of wine in the sunshine at a clifftop restaurant is always a good idea! Better yet when this all takes place in one of Europe’s most affordable destinations.

A small white gazebo built onto the side of the road above the black sea
A restaurant patio in Nessebar Bulgaria

Because Nessebar is the actual attraction, there isn’t much to see or do in particular. It’s just a nice place to spend an afternoon walking around and taking pictures.

You can actually catch a bus to Nessebar from Burgas for only about $2 – $3.

Sozopol

Similar to Nessebar, Sozopol is another ancient seaside town in Bulgaria that is full of character.

This one is located just south of Burgas, still on the Black Sea of course!

A view of the clay roofed town of Sozopol beside the blue-green water of the black Sea
Sozopol Bulgaria

Even though the styles of Nessebar and Sozopol are very similar, there is really no reason to choose. Both are easily accessed from Burgas and are small for exploring.

Both are also busy in the summer! It is worth trying to see these beautiful villages in the shoulder season.

Veliko Tarnovo

Moving on to a town like nowhere else in the country, Veliko Tarnovo is situated in the hills of north central Bulgaria.

A quiet river runs through the village of Veliko Tarnovo. The village is on the left and the right bank is covered in shrubs and trees, rising to meet the fortress walls of Tsaravets
Veliko Tarnovo

To be honest, I think Veliko Tarnovo is worth the visit just for the drive! The winding roads through the forest are often misty and seem other worldly on your trek towards town.

Once there, the city is built very uniquely around the river. The main highway drives right under the colourful town above.

A long exposure captures streaking headlights in the tunnel below the hilly town of Veliko Tarnovo
Veliko Tarnovo

I’m sure Veliko Tarnovo has it’s busy seasons, but both times that we went it was very quiet and moody. Be prepared for a bit of resourcefulness if you do travel off-season, because many shops and restaurants will be closed.

A little girl in a blue coat and pigtails walks over a blue bridge in Veliko Tarnovo with the green water of the river below and the colourful buildings in the background

You will still find places to eat, but you may end up dining at hotel restaurants a lot. An apartment with a kitchen would be a good choice!

Tsaravets Fortress

Veliko Tarnovo is probably most famous for the fortress (castle) Tsaravets. It is a huge stone wall with well preserved towers that sits just across from the town, high in the hills above the river.

A quiet river runs through the village of Veliko Tarnovo. The village is on the left and the right bank is covered in shrubs and trees, rising to meet the fortress walls of Tsaravets
Tsaravets across from the village of Veliko Tarnovo

You can spend a few hours exploring Tsaravets and it is a great place to get some pictures, both of the castle walls and the town below.

Aerial view of a bridge and little houses by the river in Veliko Tarnovo
A view from Tsaravets tower onto part of the village of Veliko Tarnovo

Overall Veliko Tarnovo is a mystical place that begs exploring.

Belogradchik Fortress (Rocks)

Far away from the rest of the sights on this list, is Belogradchik Fortress in Northwestern Bulgaria.

An ancient stone gate at Belogradchik fortress. Tall rock formations rise steeply in the background
Belogradchik Fortress

Also known as Belogradchik Rocks, this fortress is a combination of manmade fortifications in front of impressive natural stone formations.

The history of the fortress dates back to Roman times.

Rock formations like stacked boulders at Belogradchik
Belogradchik Rocks

You can spend as little or as much time as you want at Belogradchik. Climbing the stairs to one of the viewpoints takes no more than 10 minutes, but the rocky area is expansive and you could also hike all day.

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Buzludzha Monument

Easily one of the most distinctive examples of Brutalist architecture is the Buzludzha Monument, which sits right in the centre of Bulgaria.

The monument was constructed between 1974 and 1981 and sits on top of a mountain. You may have already heard of it, it’s the spaceship looking building that is somewhat famous.

Buzludzha Monument in winter at sunset. The circular spaceship-like building is silhouetted against the orange and blue sky
Buzludzha Monument

What was once officially “Monument House of the Bulgarian Communist Party,” Buzludzha has fallen into complete disrepair since it was shuttered in 1989 with the fall of Communism.

A view inside Buzludzha Monument. The stained glass hammer and sickle is in the centre of the circular building on the ceiling. There is broken glass everywhere and daylight shines through the dark.
Inside Buzludzha Monument

Efforts to save the unique structure have finally been successful however, and in 2019 some funding was designated for the its preservation.

The process to preserve Buzludzha is ongoing, and seems to have started simply with security nearby. Nobody may actually enter the building to see the retro socialist mosaics, but maybe one day that will be different.

Defaced stained glass of Soviet forefathers in Buzludzha
Some of the stained glass in Buzludzha

In the meantime, the Buzludzha monument is still a unique and futuristic stop that must be seen on any tour of Bulgaria.

A stone sculpture of two hands holding torches up to each other in front of a hill with a futuristic looking round concrete building at the top
The Buzludzha Monument from below

This monument is perfect for creating those travel photos that make people say, “where the heck is THAT?”

Bulgaria the Great

So many AMAZING things to see in Bulgaria. Some natural, some manmade, some cultural, ancient, or modern. It is a truly baffling country, with as much historical diversity as there is geographical.

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Please do venture beyond the streets of Sofia on your trip to Bulgaria!

If you are from Bulgaria, or have visited, what is your favourite hidden gem?

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